As season openers go, this was a real corker. I always thought that programming the first concert of the season must be both exciting and nerve-wracking, deciding how best to pitch it to attract the right amount of attention and set the tone for the months to come. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo launched their 2017/18 season in style, with three pieces of real substance showing the classy sound of this orchestra in its best light and with a soloist reaching out subtly to the audience with controlled angst and serenity.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Richard Strauss’ departure from his literary-based tone poems first came to fruition in Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), choosing instead to express musically the contemplations of a dying man. Fleeting motifs are used as hints or suggestions of events and emotions to capture the struggle between life and death as the unnamed artist catches glimpses of his past life before the ultimate transfiguration. Oramo and the BBCSO produced a red-blooded yet sensitive performance, full of nuance and vitality, from the irregular pulsing of the opening section, signifying the faltering heartbeat, through the full-on attack of the struggle with death, sweet nostalgic reminiscences, to the glorifying redemption of the closing “transfiguration”. Oramo carefully teased out the threads of this remarkable score, with wind solos floating effortlessly and wistfully and the brass powerful but not overpowering. There was good contrast in textures and mood swings, and the fine robust sound of the BBCSO throughout was a genuine treat. 

Alina Pogostkina’s performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (“To the Memory of an Angel”), his last completed work, was no less emotionally charged. With the twin inspirations of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, who had died suddenly aged 18, and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, with whom Berg had just finished a ten-year affair, the concerto is a masterly mix of the diatonic and the dodecaphonic, with the ultimate emotional impact of the piece borne out through its highly expressive nature. Pogostkina played with understated power and intensity, producing thoughtful and poetic lines with a rounded warmth in the lower registers and burnished sweetness in the upper. Oramo maintained a careful balance between soloist and orchestra, shaping the piece meticulously like a breathing organism. Pogostkina exerted a fiery elegance, with elements of dreaminess intermingled with cheery moments, interrupted by suitably astringent and volcanic eruptions in the second part. Alien timbres were nicely executed, and Oramo kept the Bach chorale Es ist genug on the mysterious side, while the final passage depicting Manon’s death and transfiguration took us into the stratosphere and was quite sublime in its purity and beauty.

The BBCSO and Oramo began their Sibelius symphony cycle with the most famous of the lot. 102 years ago, Sibelius celebrated his 50th birthday with the first performance of his Symphony no. 5 in E flat major in its original version. Performing the more usual second revision dating from 1919, Oramo was in indulgent form, generous with movement, shaping and extremes of dynamics (the strings were barely audible in one section, which was to great effect), while not falling into the trap of theatrically over-exaggerating.

The complex layering and syncopations within the piece were on the whole well-controlled, with just one or two moments in the first movement subject to a slight muddying. The shimmering strings and bassoon solo in the first movement and the bright, lilting winds in the Allegro moderato section were particular highlights early on, and Oramo brought crispness where needed with strings scrubbing away and steadfastly authoritative brass. The second movement was delicate and flowing, with a nice chipper middle section and singing pizzicato, while the Finale was full-bodied and life-affirming with a wonderfully resonant brass sound in the “swan hymn”. The BBCSO was heart-warming and technically brilliant throughout, and Oramo’s grand sweeping gestures were controlled by outstretched arms like the majestic swans in flight that so inspired Sibelius. Oramo’s Sibelius cycle could well be one to watch.